WHAT'S REALLY GOING ON?
The following is from Moldova Matters, a weekly blog by David Smith, American business owner in Chisinau, Moldova. David has turned his restaurant, Smokehouse, into a distribution center for relief support to Ukrainian refugees, we have known him for years, and he has our full endorsement. If you want intelligent and accurate news about the war and the refugee crisis, we strongly recommend you subscribe to Moldova Matters. Here's the latest edition.
Welcome back to Moldova Matters. This week we’re continuing our new format called “Quick Hits” where we will write important updates on evolving stories during the week. For now, we’ll use this format to keep more regular updates moving on the Russia - Ukraine crisis and specifically how this impacts Moldova.
Progress of the War
Since our last update the world has watched as Russian troops have seemingly stalled in their advances on multiple fronts and Ukrainian forces continue to hold major cities in the north, east and south of the country. Part of the pause is the result of Russia changing tactics and slowly adapting to a much more brutal war of attrition that is likely to see the wholesale destruction of large cities across Ukraine. Mariupol in southeast Ukraine is still holding in spite of heavy and relentless shelling including the destruction of a maternity hospital in the city. This is the likely fate of city after city as the Russian army will try to capture large urban centers.
Shelling of apartment building in Mariupol
You can see from this aerial view just how massive the destruction is. And how the targeting of civilian buildings and homes is the norm not an exception.
A guy-wrenching bird’s eye view of the hell that Russian forces have unleashed on Mariupol, where more than 2,000 people have been killed. There’s no power, no heat, no running water. Food is running out. Video shared by the Ukrainian Interior Ministry.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky continues his outreach to western partners asking for more arms as well as advocating for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Last week, Zelensky became the first foreign leader to ever directly address the British House of Commons. He invoked Churchill by saying that "We [Ukraine] will fight to the end in the sea, in the air, we will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets." Additionally Zelensky quoted Shakespeare in reference to Putin’s stated desire to destroy the Ukrainian state, saying that Ukraine has chosen “to be” (as opposed to “not to be”).
Following the speech he received a standing ovation from parliament but the British government continues to rule out a no-fly zone in concert with NATO policy.
In some sense, it seems the world is completely focused on the Ukrainian President as he has become a sort of conscience to the western world and a reminder of how bravely a nation can fight for their freedoms in the face of aggression. But beyond those statements, his continued presence among his troops and in Kyiv remains a massive contrast to Putin’s videos at the end of a long table in what is assumed to be a bunker somewhere.
Life in Occupied Ukraine
Cities and towns occupied by Russian forces continue to resist the occupation in the form of daily protests against the Russian army and Rosgvardiya (militarized police) troops stationed there. In Melitopol, as well as at least 3 other Ukrainian cities, the mayor has been kidnapped by the occupiers and replaced. The new mayor, a Russian appointed quisling, has urged the citizens to refrain from “extremism” (protest) and to accept the “new reality.” In occupied Kherson, there is reporting that Russian forces are preparing to stage a referendum on the creation of a Kherson People’s Republic. Moves like this should make it clear to anyone still questioning Putin’s intentions that Ukraine is planned for annexation.
Odessa Prepares for War
Moldovan outlet Newsmaker sent a team of journalists south into Odessa this week and reported on the city’s preparation for war. The story outlined the mass mobilization of a city that knows it will soon be under attack and is using every moment it has to prepare. The Odessa Food Market, one of the best restaurant hubs in the city, has transformed into a volunteer coordination center where 100s of people work daily to receive humanitarian aid. Food, medicine and more flows in, is sorted and then is moved outward to the city’s defenders. Volunteers shelter in the basement of the building when missile strikes from the Black Sea or airstrikes occur. Local NGO Spilna Meta, which previously focused on fighting illegal construction in the city, has become a sort of coordinating hub for lots of incoming humanitarian aid and volunteer centers like the Food Market. Some of this aid comes from Moldova as the city both cares for its population and stocks up on supplies in advance of the coming battle for the city. A local volunteer explained the situation to the Newsmaker journalist:
“Thousands of people are responding. Someone collects sand for barricades, someone weaves camouflage nets, others weld anti-tank hedgehogs. No one needs to be asked, or forced, people are very motivated.” - Petr Konoplya, volunteer
Moldova Government Response
We’re doing to do a quick run-through of the Moldovan government updates and political and economic moves. Then we will take more time at the end for an analysis of the situation as it stands here and what might be next.
This week there has been absolutely unprecedented in terms of international news coverage of Moldova. Crews from CNN, French TV, British TV, Italian TV and much more have all come to Moldova to report on the refugee crisis and talk of officials about how the government is responding to the war next door. The government is maintaining a clear line with the Prime Minister and others consistently emphasizing Moldova’s constitutional status as a militarily neutral country and that they do not currently see a threat from Transnistria.
One interview worth watching is Prime Minister Gavrilita speaking to CNN about the war and refugee crisis. In it she strongly condemned the unprovoked invasion and called for peace. The Prime Minister highlighted the “extraordinary humanitarian crisis” in Moldova noting that at this time every 8th child in the country is a refugee. One very interesting fact she mentioned in the interview is that the closure of Moldova’s airspace in the first days of the war was done in response to a request from the Russian Federation which noted that this was required due to military operations that could potentially endanger civilian aircraft over Moldova.
The Central Election Commission has canceled local elections in Moldova that were scheduled for May 15th due to the State of Emergency and will reschedule them after the State of Emergency ends.
Right now in Moldova supply chains are severely disrupted due to the war. Moldova previously bought many products from Ukraine and imported other products through the port of Odessa. A major story this week has been about how it has become impossible to buy salt in the supermarkets. The Ministry of Economy assures that this is temporary as Moldova previously purchased 85% of its salt through Ukraine and supply chains are adapting to the war.
More critically for Moldova energy prices continue to skyrocket. Gasoline prices have spiked to 27 lei / liter (25.8 for diesel) ($5.50 / gallon of gas). These prices represent the maximum prices allowed by regulators and wholesale prices have already spiked above retail prices. This cycle is continuing week-to-week forcing the national energy regulator to approve hikes in the retail price in order to keep the supply of gasoline coming.
Electricity has also become a problem. Moldova was preparing to sign a 1 year contract on the supply of electricity from Transnistria but the Transnistrian side pulled back any only agreed to month-to-month contracts. They cite uncertainty in the supply chain as the reason but it is not hard to see Russia flexing its energy muscles here once again.
In order to create some energy resiliency, Moldova has begun to buy natural gas from non-Russian sources and stockpile it in a strategic reserve. Funds for this were requested as a loan from the EBRD and approved. It’s not clear where this reserve will be as Moldova does not have facilities for storing gas but it is safe to assume it will be in Romania (as opposed to Ukraine).
At a macro level, the National Bank has reported that the banking sector is stable and that there are adequate currency reserves in both dollars and euros. With that said, I can anecdotally report (and welcome comments corroborating or refuting) that my foreign bank cards now have currency controls restricting withdraws of both lei and dollars / euros from ATMs. Local bank cards have no such restrictions. This is not an announced policy but this is presumably an attempt to prevent Ukrainian refugees from withdrawing too much hard currency while in Moldova in transit to the EU.
As of March 12th around 350,000 refugees have entered Moldova since the beginning of the war with around 103,000 currently staying in the country. Of these, almost 50% are children. Moldova’s population has increased by 4% due to the influx of refugees and support systems are strained trying to cope. Especially at the southern Palanca border crossing there is a never ending flow of people entering the country and seeking help.
A Moldovan Police officer holds a child at the border crossing
Moldova is estimating that it costs between 25 and 30 euro a day to support each refugee. There are 93 official refugee centers with 3811 total beds with the government currently providing food daily for 4825 persons. What is most incredible about these numbers is what is hiding in plain sight. Of the over 100,000 people the government is housing 3.8% of them and feeding 4.8%. The Prime Minister estimates that 75% of all refugees in Moldova are being housed in personal homes that families have opened up to strangers. What we see here is the massive amount of work being done by individuals, businesses and NGOs to care for refugees in Moldova.
It is really important to note that while the UN is nominally taking a lead in the international relief effort there have been extraordinarily minimal deliveries of either money or supplies at this time. It is fair to say that the entire effort to support these refugees is being borne by the Moldovan government and smaller civil society efforts.
Once again, if you are in a position to donate or can spread the word in your social network please see our guide to how you can help refugees in Moldova.
The government continues to streamline bureaucratic processes for refugees and this week allowed refugees to apply online for a national ID number. This number will allow them to work, send their kids to school, and more. They have also expedited licensing and other processes to allow aid in. For example, Elon Musk is deploying Starlink sites to border points and refugee centers in Moldova and the government raced through licenses for this process.
Unfortunately, it was announced that Moldova’s state telecom company MoldTelecom was setting up the Starlink sites. That is not true as the effort is actually being coordinated by the following groups:
The contribution is being coordinated locally by Moldova World Children’s Fund, which is part of the long time North Carolina-Moldova partnership, in collaboration with the international NGOs FootPrintProject, and SmartAid,
Whether this was a clerical error… or MoldTelecom opportunistically attempted to claim credit for someone else’s work is unclear.
Refugee Transit Picks Up
Germany and France have each agreed to take 2500 refugees from Moldova. What this means is somewhat unclear as Ukraine has visa free travel to both countries. Perhaps they are sending transport and providing housing? We don’t know. But Moldova continues to prioritize transit west as the country is already buckling under the strain of the refugees already here. Moldova is even setting up roadsigns on critical evacuation routes on both Russian and Ukrainian in order to help people find their way to the capital or to Romania.
Those Who Support Russia in the War
In Moldova, outright support for Russia has been very small. But from the political class there have been exceptions. Former President Igor Dodon did not go so far as to outright support Russia but he did note on TV this week that “refugees who behave badly” should be deported back to Ukraine. At best heartless, at worst… well… much worse.
Ex-MP Iuri Rosca went much further with this statement:
“Pray not for the end of the war, pray for the continuation of this war and for the victory of Putin’s Russia over satanic globalism,”
It is important to understand the Mr. Rosca was once a hero of the pro-European opposition and the leader of an entire generation of reform minded Moldovans. He betrayed them in 2005 when he compromised with Voronin’s communist government. It seems every country has a Rudi Giuliani and the consistent theme is that once they fall from grace there is no depth to which they will not sink. Rosca’s websites have been blocked by SIS and law enforcement is investigating his statements.
Ilian Shor’s wife has also become a vocal advocate for the “de-nazification” of Ukraine and otherwise calls for Russian victory. It seems like multiple exiled political figures in Moldova are positioning themselves as potential quislings should Russia chose to cross the Nistru.
Analysis - Where are we now?
The following analysis is based on the author’s perspective.
It is my opinion that we can honestly and confidently assert the following: Ukraine is fighting for Moldova’s survival. I will explain my thinking below but let us first address the key question inherent in that statement - how is Ukraine doing? At this point it is fair to say that Ukraine has exceeded all expectations both as a military and as a society in rising to the challenge of this war. Weeks ago we saw intelligence estimates that Kyiv would fall in 48 - 72 hours. Now the Russian advance in the north is stalled and Kyiv looks prepared to give them a long and hard fight for the capital. American academic Francis Fukuyama and others are arguing that Putin is actually heading rather quickly for a serious defeat both in terms of military, economic and political objectives. It is very possible that the complete destruction of the Russian economy that will play out in the coming weeks combined with Ukrainian military resistance will be decisive.
At the same time, none of this is guaranteed and and even in the best case the war is almost certainly going to get worse before it gets better. Here are 3 factors that people in Moldova are watching very closely right now:
The Battle for Odessa - As we have written many times, Odessa is militarily critical to Moldova. The battle for Odessa has not yet begun and the city is ready to fight. But should the city fall Russian forces will move north to link up south of Kyiv. This will put Transnistria into the field of operations and Russian troops right across the Moldova borders.
The US Embassy - US intelligence called it exactly right on the invasion in Ukraine and everyone has taken notice. The evacuation of the US Embassy in Kyiv right ahead of the attack is a clear indicator and everyone is now wondering what the posture of the US Embassy in Chisinau is. Right now, it is unchanged and dignitaries such as Secretary Blinken and others are coming into Moldova rather than leaving.
Potential Ceasefire Lines - If Russia comes to the table and negotiates it will be key what territory they control. Specifically, whether or not they control any territory adjacent to Moldova.
These are the factors that people are watching in Moldova. In addition to these, people react to a flood of misinformation that adds additional stress-points and doubts into people’s minds. I can say that I get multiple calls / messages every day with people asking about the topics listed above. Let’s explore how they play out. These are *if* statements so please forgive the speculation on future events. The point is to highlight how society is likely to react to these scenarios based on the mood on the ground and conversations I am having day to day.
IF the US Embassy Evacuates or suggests Americans leave - Any move by the US Embassy is likely to be followed closely by other western embassies in Moldova. Moldovans are closely watching the Embassy and IF they evacuate or order Americans out, this will be a trigger for a first mass exodus from the country. Many people have already left or sent their families / children out of Moldova. Some businesspeople I know are selling all their stocks and preparing to go. Many more people are looking for a sign and they have latched onto the US Embassy. Right? Wrong? Doesn’t matter. After US intelligence called the invasion so correctly people are closely watching American moves.
IF Odessa is attacked - If (when) the battle for Odessa begins this will trigger an even larger refugee wave into Moldova. This influx combined with shelling that will be heard day and night in parts of Moldova is likely to trigger a limited exodus from the country. This will become supercharged if Transnistria participates in the attack on Odessa.
IF Odessa falls - This is the big sign. If Odessa falls then the last major barrier between Russian forces and Moldova will be gone. Personally, I think Odessa will hold, come hell or high water. But if the city falls the Moldovan government will be forced to answer extremely urgent questions about the country’s defense. If Transnistria is part of the fight for Odessa, these questions will be asked long before the city falls. Moldova will have to answer how they will defend their citizens and currently we have no answers other than a hope that Russia will respect the country’s neutral status.
IF Russia Borders Moldova - In any of the darker scenarios here where Russia winds up occupying Ukrainian land on the border with Moldova we have to understand what this will mean. Let us assume that not a single tank ever moves towards Moldova and Transnistria stays out of the fight. What then? Well, Moldovans understand perfectly what it means to have Russia as a neighbor. They may roll the tanks in tomorrow, next week, or in 5 years. But they will roll in. From Georgia in 2008, to Ukraine in 2014, to the present we know that countries without security guarantees (NATO or other allies) are seen by the Russian Federation as ripe for the taking. While this is my analysis, it is also the conversation I have again and again with business owners in Moldova. The fact is that if Russia becomes Moldova’s “neighbor” by means of occupation there will be a mass exodus in the business and professional class and investment will be deeply impacted. Russian aggression will be assumed and in that case many people will not see a future here.
So what does this all mean? The simplest conclusion is that Ukraine is fighting for Moldova as well. Maybe not for statehood or territorial integrity (maybe that too), but definitely for the economic and social viability of the state. There are 3 countries here that are not NATO members and who have therefore suffered Russian aggression. Belarus - which is occupied by Russia. Ukraine - which is invaded by Russia. And Moldova, which has many brave Ukrainians in Odessa separating it from Russia. Moldova is not nearly as well consolidated society as Ukraine. The army is tiny and antiquated. Most importantly, Moldova has no military allies and is nearly totally dependent on Russia to keep the lights on and the furnaces lit.
It is not at all unreasonable to say that Ukraine fights for Moldova.
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128 Stefan Cel Mare, Chisinau Moldova, MD2010